With the central Kenai Peninsula at medium-risk level, football, cross-country running and cheerleading were able to have their first practices of the season Wednesday.
The protocol from the Alaska School Activities Association spelled out COVID-19 waivers, screening, cleaning and hand sanitizing for participants. Players must work out in pods, remain socially distanced, all use their own water bottles and refrain from touching or group celebrations.
As abnormal as all of that would have seemed a year ago, the procedures were business as usual at Soldotna High School’s football practice — the Stars held summer workouts under similar protocols.
“It was pretty normal,” said Soldotna sophomore Jarek Derleth, who plays tight end and defensive end. “Cones were set up, just like in the summer. It felt really good. I’m hoping to play football this year.”
As long as the central peninsula can stay at medium or low risk, which is determined by the number of positive resident COVID tests in the last 14 days, football games are allowed.
What the schedule will look like is another question.
ASAA has already condensed the eight-week regular season to seven weeks, eliminating Week 2 because that was the easiest. SoHi’s Week 1 opponent, Juneau-Douglas/Thunder Mountain, has already said it won’t travel to the peninsula.
Week 3 for the Stars is scheduled to be a game at South Anchorage on Aug. 28, but the Anchorage School District announced Wednesday that students can’t return to practices until school begins Aug. 20 due to rising COVID-19 cases in Anchorage.
With so many unknowns, Soldotna coach Galen Brantley told his players to worry about controlling the controllables in a speech to close practice.
Noah Harper, a junior who plays outside linebacker and tight end, said that is the approach he’s taking as the pandemic continues to alter the lives of students. Harper was going to compete in track and field as a sophomore, but that spring season was canceled due to the new coronavirus.
“I’ve kind of learned to stop worrying about what I can’t control and worry about what I can, and make the most of that,” Harper said.
Soldotna has won 12 of the last 14 state championships in the small- and then medium-schools divisions, but even that juggernaut has not escaped the virus unscathed.
Brantley Jr. said there were about 40 players at practice. Normally, he said there would be about 80. Even after graduating a large class this year, the coach expected about 70 players this season before the pandemic hit.
While safety concerns are a factor, Brantley Jr. said the biggest reason is players were not expecting the season to start on time, so they hung on to summer jobs.
Harper said he didn’t think there would be practice Wednesday after he heard about the practice delays in Anchorage. So even though the Stars did a series of physical tests, then conditioning, over the three hours, he had no complaints.
“There was not really much football stuff today, but we’ll get more into that as we go along,” he said. “I didn’t even expect to be out here today. It’s definitely better than nothing.”
Brantley Jr. said he understands why players would have kept jobs, but that makes him more impressed with those who showed up Wednesday.
“The kids who found a way to battle through all the uncertainty and be here will always hold a special place in my heart,” he said. “It was certainly more challenging this year.”
The credo of the Soldotna program is “Pound the Rock.” The mantra comes from a stonecutter pounding the rock countless times with no change in the rock until the decisive blow comes and the rock splits in two.
Brantley Jr. said the theme will be important this season.
“‘Pound the Rock’ is about how you handle adversity,” Brantley Jr. said. “This is it. This is putting it to the test. The best will rise to the top, as they always do.”
After missing out on baseball this spring, Derleth said he hopes Wednesday is a step toward football games and school.
“I’m taking it day by day, but I’m excited for the school year,” Derleth said. “I’m excited to get back and see my friends.”
Brantley Jr. said the excitement extends to the coaches.
“I feel blessed every day I get to work with kids,” the coach said. “Most of these kids and some of these coaches also missed out on spring sports. It just feels good to be up and running again.”
That excitement may explain why many players had smiles on their faces during conditioning drills as they sprinted and bear-crawled up steep hills.
“Some of the kids are so excited to be here,” Brantley Jr. said. “They love football. They don’t want to be without it. Those are the kids you win with on Saturdays.”
The coach also mentioned in his speech to close practice that if COVID numbers stay the same or drop, the players will get to participate in games. Brantley Jr. said having games as a motivation is key.